The Web has revolutionized the way the government communicates with the public but many officials are still being slow in making the most of the Internet, report Lan Tian in Beijing, and Li Yingqing and Guo Anfei in Kunming
From "online bystanders" to an outspoken force, netizens have begun to play a large role in setting China's social agenda. By repeatedly exposing injustices and corruption, the Internet has become an effective tool in policing officials, say digital media analysts.
Yet critics claim many local authorities have been too slow in harnessing the power of the Web, mainly due to "over cautious" attitudes.
Netizens went from reading the headlines to making them in 2009, when online outcries over a series of incidents grabbed the attention of top officials, sparking large-scale investigations.
One such case was the death of Li Qiaoming, 24, who was killed at a detention facility in Yunnan province. Initial reports suggested he died in an accident during a game of hide-and-seek. However, the online community claimed it was a cover-up. After much criticism, the provincial publicity department invited several netizens to join the police investigation, which discovered Li was, in fact, beaten to death by fellow inmates.
The result was heralded as a success by netizens and the Yunnan authority, while other officials were quick to copy the move after controversial incidents in Shanghai and Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu province.
"We didn't realize we were doing something special by inviting the netizens," said Wu Hao, deputy director of the Yunnan provincial publicity department and the mastermind behind the idea. "We just wanted to respect and protect the public's rights to know, to express, to participate and to supervise."
The 39-year-old former journalist won much praise last year for his innovative methods, including holding the country's first Internet press conference and selecting 100 citizens aged 17 to 66 as volunteer media supervisors. Following protests by more than 10,000 Kunming traders over the closure of the city's Luoshiwan market, Wu set up a micro-blogging site for the provincial government on sina.com, a major Chinese news portal, to offer updates on the incident. Wu also set up his own micro-blogging site, which attracted 50,000 fans in just one month.
"The Internet has changed the face of communication between the government and the public. Using the newest technology to release news quickly, officials can prevent the spread of damaging rumors," said Wu. "Every social issue is followed by rumors. If authorities don't communicate with the public quickly, public opinions on the Internet could cause more serious problems."
After 16 years of Web access, China's online population has steadily swelled to 384 million users, the largest in the world, showed a recent China Internet Network Information Center report. With each year, their influence on social incidents, judicial rulings and government policies has grown.
According to Renmin University of China's public opinion research institute, almost 35 percent of the most talked about topics of 2009 were forced into the spotlight by netizens, such as when Tang Fuzhen, 47, set herself on fire in Sichuan province last November to protest the demolition of her ex-husband's house. The ensuing nationwide online debate prompted the State Council Legislative Affairs Office to consider revising the laws on forced demolition.